‘It’s not exclusively about gay rights or sexuality,’ explains George from the doorstep of his current abode on 171 Camden High Street. ‘For most people it’s about finding a home. We don’t want to be homeless…’
London’s gay scene is still reeling from the shock closure of Camden’s Black Cap – one of the capital’s most iconic gay taverns – in April. So much so, protestors are still holding vigils outside it every Saturday. But the latest chapter in the building’s colorful history could prove the most compelling yet.
A queer squatting group has seized the property, much to the chagrin of its owners – meaning the The Black Cap’s future is all the more uncertain. Forget luxury flats or chain restaurants – the possibility of TBC reopening as modern gay speakeasy now seems plausible.
Camden Queer Punx 4eva
The group, nicknamed ‘Camden Queer Punx 4eva’, took over the beloved venue in the first week of June – but the squat it is about more than gay rights or the Black Cap’s closure. Meeting Gay Star News last Friday, George F, acting as a spokesperson for the group, said he identifies as queer but that the group is comprised of all sexualities. ‘We’re gay, queer, bisexual,’ he adds. ‘We’re all one and we look after each other.’
Getting into the closed pub was easy, he claimed: a back window had been left open, so the group took their chance and climbed in, meaning they’ve yet to break the law. Squatting in commercial property is legal in England and Wales, but as soon as squatters break in, they commit a criminal offense. ‘We repair things, we make sure it’s not vandalized and there’s no graffiti,’ says George.
We ask George what the first thing to do is when occupying a new squat. ‘Lock it,’ he says immediately, and laughs. The group then put up a note, which had been removed again on Friday (5 June), stating the squatters’ rights. It also warns of fines of up to £5,000 (â‚¬6,864, $7,617) for trying to force or threatening violent entry.
‘We haven’t had a chance to speak to them,’ George says when asked about his new neighbors. ‘We always try to say hello, try and have a chat. We’ve been in areas where people are happy that there is life in an empty property.’
Anger turns to action
The group previously occupied the former Marine Ices building, an ice cream shop forced to move when the site was cleared for redevelopment last year. ‘Eighty years that building was there, serving ice cream to people, then it was shut down and now it’s going to be turned into luxury flats,’ George said. ‘There is so much more they could turn it into than that; something the people and the community will benefit from.’
The squatting movement gained prominence after World War II, when over 40,000 servicemen returning from the war, were left homeless – so, together with their families, they occupied houses and derelict camps. The scene has since evolved. High-end flats are in development all over London, unaffordable for most people who lived there before – like the squatters, who work as tattooists, artists or migrant workers – and many are vacant.
‘People’s right to a house supersedes the right of property ownership,’ George argues. Camden Council is attempting to cut down on empty homes by increasing council tax for them by 50%, unless they are undergoing building works.
‘We are the people who made Camden an international tourist destination,’ George claimed – but none of them can afford Camden anymore. ‘We want private landlords and institutions to come up with creative solutions to the housing crisis. Civil disobedience is a voice, direct action is a voice. We’ve got the Tories for five more years; they have more power and they seem angrier.’
The Black Cap’s owners have met with the squatters and the police, but when the group tried to make a deal to stay until the building’s fate has been decided ‘they didn’t seem too keen’.
Such deals aren’t unusual. A West London group managed to get a deal allowing them to stay in a building as long as they left when work was being done – they stayed there for months. Others in Kensington – an area called the Qatari Quarter, because the Qatari royal family owns a large number of homes there – were known to be living in an empty million-pound-property.
Dehumanization is a big problem for squatters, George says. ‘People walk past [squatters] and rough sleepers and barely recognize them as human.’
Finding sustenance has gotten harder, too: a few years ago, digging for food in supermarket containers was accepted, but today shops aim to prevent it – some try to arrest people, others pour bleach over their waste, George claims.
Police and bailiffs are not always on the squatters’ side, either. Although it’s illegal; George says threats of violence and forced entry happen ‘more often than you’d believe.’ On the other hand, in the group’s former squat, bailiffs gave them time to pack and move their belongings instead of forcing them out right away. Then there was the pair of police officers they ran into last week.
‘One of my friends jumped out and said “We’re squatting”,’ George tells us. ‘The police patted him on his back and went their way.’
Evicting the squatters takes at least four weeks if the pub owners take proceedings to the courts, but the group could be evicted much sooner should the owners obtain an Interim Possession Order. Ultimately the new owners’ next step remains to be seen.
In the meantime, George remains unsure if or when his group would reopen the Black Cap’s doors – but said squatting there brought something new for him: support from the public. ‘It’s the first time that’s happened,’ he says. ‘We get messages from people who used to come to the Black Cap who say they support what we do. People have so much power to change what is happening in their lives,’ George says. ‘Some people figured that out ages ago and took what they could get.’
As we say our goodbyes, his phone beeps: ‘Excellent work Queer Punx 4eva 🙂 so happy someone occupied. Solidarity x’